Kevin Nisbet’s move to Milwall this summer had the feel of a deal that had been in the pipeline for a while. The Scotland internationalist, who had endured another stop-start campaign at Hibernian that was punctuated by injury, was the subject of a transfer bid from the same English Championship club back in January and it has been a rather open secret that the striker was open to a new challenge for some time now. If not for his injury troubles, it probably would have arrived even sooner.

Nisbet missed around half of the 2022/23 campaign but still finished as Hibs’ top scorer with 12 goals to his name in 20 appearances across all competitions – a fine return, all things considered – and although the centre-forward’s exit is a blow for the Leith club, it is one that Lee Johnson and his coaching staff have had plenty of time to prepare for.

The £2million that has been deposited in the Easter Road outfit’s club coffers will provide some comfort, especially given the fact that the 26-year-old was signed from Dunfermline for a fraction of that price. But Nibset’s departure does beg one rather obvious question: who will lead the line for Hibs in the upcoming campaign?

With Conference League qualifiers on the horizon and approaching with alarming speed, an answer is required in the not-too-distant future. Adam Le Fondre has been brought in on a free transfer during the off-season following the expiration of the striker’s Sydney FC contract and the 36-year-old would appear to be the obvious candidate – particularly after getting his first Hibs goal in Saturday’s 2-0 friendly win over FC Europa in Marbella – but the Englishman is not the only option Johnson has available to him.

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Martin Boyle’s imminent return to fitness suggests that the right-hand side of Johnson’s front three is likely to be sewn up for the foreseeable, leaving the other two positions up for grabs. Elias Hoff Melkersen, Christian Doidge and Le Fondre will also be vying for that central berth at the tip of Hibs’ spear but they could find stiff competition from elsewhere in the squad.

Johnson could certainly do a lot worse than turn to Elie Youan. The Frenchman, who was initially brought to Leith on loan before making his stay permanent by signing a three-year deal in May, is the very definition of a mercurial forward. Capable of enthralling and frustrating in equal measure, the 24-year-old is the type of player who can effortlessly get bums off seats and produce the unexpected. The striker’s sublime volley in Hibs’ 4-2 win over Celtic towards the end of last season is perhaps the most emphatic example but his trickery on the ball has left many an opponent bamboozled, too.

Youan possesses no shortage of potential; the challenge for the attacker is to produce on a regular basis. He has been a victim of his own versatility at times, shuffling around the front three without a prolonged run in one position but he might just have already earned his shot at picking up Nisbet’s mantle of striker-in-chief at the club.

Youan played in fits and starts at centre-forward last term but his performances would suggest he perhaps has a long-term future through the middle. He racked up around 600 minutes in total as an out-and-out striker – often when Nisbet was sidelined through injury – and although this isn’t the largest sample size we could hope for, it does give an indication of how Youan compares to his cinch Premiership contemporaries.

When we compare the numbers Youan was putting in as a striker to other centre-forwards in the league (with at least 600 minutes under their belts), the results make for intriguing reading. The former St Gallen player has the seventh-highest non-penalty goals per 90 minutes of any striker in the division – and is second when Celtic and Rangers players are removed – with 0.55: a figure only bettered by Kyogo Furuhashi (0.99), Antonio Colak (0.84), Hyeon-gyu Oh (0.77), Giorgos Giakoumakis (0.68), Nisbet (0.65), Fashion Sakala (0.56) and Alfredo Morelos (0.56).

There is also a rather large discrepancy between Youan’s goals scored (0.55) and expected goals (0.28) per 90 minutes. This implies two things, both of which happen to be true: that he has been somewhat fortunate on occasion (Youan’s scuffed second in the 4-1 victory away to Livingston in March springs to mind, as does his long-range pot-shot in the 4-2 win over Celtic); and that he has a knack of scoring chances that your average striker might miss, such as his quick and composed finish against St Mirren in May.

All of this would suggest that Youan is worthy of consideration for a prolonged run in the team at centre-forward but there is another rather sizable string to the Nantes academy product’s bow that cannot be overlooked: his ability with the ball at his feet. This is perhaps where the biggest frustrations with Youan lie, yet it also has the potential to be one of his greatest asset.

The 24-year-old’s nimble feet, quick turn of pace and low centre of gravity make him a fearsome opponent when he is carrying the ball at speed. This dribbling ability has allowed him to grab a handful of assists when playing as a striker, often by beating the last defender before cutting the ball back for a team-mate, and his 4.4 dribbles per 90 minutes put him in the top bracket of centre-forwards in the league last season in this regard.

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There’s just one problem, though: as the player himself admitted in a post-match interview, he isn’t always entirely focused on the task at hand. Dangerous-looking attacks occasionally turn into meandering forays forward when he has the ball at his feet, and he can be guilty of not always playing with his head up. With fewer than half of his attempted dribbles proving successful, is an area that requires improvement if he is to seize the No.9 position.

“The manager always says to me ‘switch on’,” Youan told the press pack. “He loves this phrase! The manager is right to ask me to switch on. And it's not only the gaffer, all the staff tell me!

“They all tell me to switch on. Always. Sometimes I am away. I don't know how to explain it but sometimes my head is in the clouds. But I have a good relationship with the manager and I have learned a lot with him. He has tried to keep me focussed and to concentrate on every ball.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, most of Youan’s most effective displays in a Hibernian shirt have come against sides employing high defensive lines. A dangerous who thrives on running at a stretched defence, Youan can be positively lethal on the counter-attack, as both Livingston and Ross County discovered to their peril last season. On both occasions Youan capitalised on a defence that was pushed up too high for pretty much a free run at goal; and on both occasions he cooly slammed the ball home.

Whether or not Youan can have the same sort of impact in a cagey contest against a deep-lying defence  in the season ahead remains to be seen, but the evidence thus far would suggest it could be an effective strategy for Johnson to deploy. His run at centre-forward earlier this year showed a player who is capable of the bread-and-butter fundamentals of the role, and his quick feet and superb close control mean he can also unpick a tight defence – if he can play with his head up and look for team-mates in what is usually a fairly crowded opposition penalty box.

The raw ingredients are there with Youan and the data suggests he can become one of the Premiership’s most effective centre-forwards with a little fine-tuning. Our small sample suggests that Youan’s efficient finishing, coupled with his dribbling ability, makes him a thoroughly dangerous opponent – and he can become downright lethal with the help of some careful tactical instruction. Youan can be front and centre of this Hibs team – and he is surely front and centre of his manager’s thoughts.